As Pastor Maldonado chased Fernando Alonso in the late laps at Melbourne, I confess I pictured Rubens Barrichello – watching the race on TV in Sao Paulo – thinking, ‘If only…’
No, this wasn’t some computer game: a Ferrari driven by a double World Champion really was under threat from a semi-rookie in a Williams – a threat which evaporated, of course, when Maldonado dropped it on the very last lap. Fernando said he felt sorry for him, and presumably Rubens did, too – more than that, though, he will have been regretful that he hadn’t been in that car.
For the last two seasons, after all, Barrichello had been team leader at Williams, and last year, particularly, had a terrible car to drive – a car which scored only five points in 19 races. Maldonado is no slouch, and – until making his disastrous mistake – drove extremely well in Australia, but F1’s longest-serving veteran or not, Barrichello invariably outpaced him in 2010, and must have wondered where he might have been in the final pecking order in Melbourne. This year’s Williams – now Renault-powered – is the team’s most promising car for a very long time, and, lest we forget, it’s only a couple of years since Rubens, with Brawn, won two Grands Prix on merit, and for the second half of 2009 invariably had the measure of team mate Jenson Button.
All winter long Barrichello waited by the phone – would he be retained by the team for 2012 or not? The call, when it came, brought bad news, and most Grand Prix drivers – ask Sebastien Buemi or Jaime Alguersuari – know this can happen to them; it was disappointing, though, to learn from Rubens that the team’s decision was conveyed to him perfunctorily. Next…
One of the nicest guys of recent times was therefore absent from the Melbourne paddock, and he wasn’t the only one. No one needs to be reminded that times are hard – who, not so long ago, could ever imagined a Williams team with not just one, but two ‘pay drivers’? Over at Caterham (nee Lotus) meantime, Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli took part in pre-season testing, but as the first race approached Trulli was informed that he would not be required, that his place in the team was to be taken by the highly-sponsored Vitaly Petrov, dropped by Lotus (nee Renault – confusing, this modern F1, isn’t it?) in favour of Romain Grosjean.
No Barrichello in Melbourne then, and no Trulli either. Jarno was always a quirky Grand Prix driver, in the sense that he had immense natural talent, and was as quick over one lap as any driver of the last 20 years – but only if everything was right. Last year, for example, he couldn’t get along with his car’s power steering system, and it blighted his season: Kovalainen just got on with it.
When Trulli was teamed with Alonso at Renault though there were qualifying days when Fernando, admittedly earlier in his career, couldn’t live with him, and at Monaco in 2004 – the only Grand Prix Jarno was to win – he crashed trying to keep up with him. No one could have beaten Trulli that day, and it pleases me that at least – unlike the remarkably gifted Chris Amon – he will always have a Grand Prix victory to his name.
That said, Trulli was like many drivers – notably his compatriot and sometime team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella – in that in a race, particularly if his car were not up to snuff, he would ‘go to sleep’. I remember watching the 2005 Italian Grand Prix from the Renault pit, complete with headphones plugged in to the drivers and race engineers: while Alonso, running second to Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren, maintained a relentless speed, on it every lap, Fisichella’s engineer, Alan Permane, repeatedly had to gee him up, tell him to pick up the pace because so-and-so was closing on him. Significantly Fisichella, whenever told to speed up, at once responded, so it was there within him; left to his own devices, though, he wasn’t making call on it…
I’m not criticising only these two, for there are many like them, but Trulli indeed fell prey to this weakness. If his car was ‘right’ for him, he would fly; if not, there were signs almost that he would lose interest, and simply drive around. A great shame, this, for his natural ability was way higher than Fisichella’s – way higher than most drivers’ – and he should have come out of Formula 1 with a lot of victories.
Jarno’s exit was significant in another way, too. Given that Tonio Liuzzi was not retained by HRT, Trulli was going to be the only Italian driver in F1 for 2012. Now, for the first time since 1969, there are no representatives from the country, and that’s a great sadness, not least because there are many, myself included, who have traditionally looked upon Italy as the natural homeland of motor racing. When I was a little kid, first falling in love with the sport, the teams of consequence were Ferrari and Maserati, and thus my earliest memories are of red cars winning.
It could be argued that not since the death of Alberto Ascari, in 1955, has Italy produced a really great Grand Prix driver. There’s no logical reason why this should be so, but while several – Castellotti, Musso, Bandini, Patrese, Alboreto – were capable of a great performance on a given day, none ever reached the very top level. Of all those to come along since Ascari, it may be that Trulli had the greatest natural gift – to watch him on a qualifying lap at Monte Carlo, blindingly quick, effortlessly deft, was a joy for the ages. Not only that, he is a delightful fellow, an old-fashioned gent, and I will much miss his presence in our sport.
In Italy, after the debacle of Melbourne, they are clamouring for Felipe Massa to be replaced in the Ferrari team forthwith – harsh, but perhaps unsurprising. One name suggested in the Italian press as a possible replacement is Sergio Perez, the other Jarno Trulli. Alonso and Trulli in the same team again… it probably won’t happen, but wouldn’t it be fascinating if it did?